We writers cannot live in isolation. We often think we can, we convince ourselves we do. Like many of my writer friends and colleagues, I spend hours each day in my own little world, deep in thought, planning story-lines, creating and manipulating characters. It’s all too easy to believe that I am divorced from reality as I build worlds and imagine conversations.
But I’m not. We’re not. We are in fact very closely linked with the world around us, necessarily so, since even our fictions must be built on some kind of reality. We people-watch, we observe, then we go back to our desks and computers screens, or our comfy sofas and our notebooks, and we report what we have seen and heard. Sometimes we change the outcome, or the setting, or the players in our dramas, to create a more useful impact in our work.
Years ago, on a holiday to Scotland, tour guides would always say, ‘And over there you can see the Black Isle. It’s not an isle but a peninsula.’
That’s what I am. Connected to the mainland of the world around me by a narrow but crucial and strong strip of reality, not an island, not remote, separate, autonomous or isolated. But an integral part, connected, associated, a partner in the journey. I depend on this connection for my work, and without it I wouldn’t be able to shut myself away and write.
I think most of us have days when we stare into space and can’t think of a single thing to write. Here are my top tips for getting on with it. There’s not anything really new here, just practical ideas to keep you – and me – writing. Some tips are obvious, some are simple, some are just coping mechanisms that have worked for me.
Keep social media out of your work area! It’s so easy to lose an hour or two just ‘checking your emails’ – which we often disguise as ‘work’! So if you are a media junkie and know deep down you spend too much time oohing and ahhing over other people’s cat pictures, do everything you can to keep Internet availability to areas away from where you work. Also, try to keep your breaks short – just enough time to eat, drink, pee and then get back to work. (btw Eat, Drink, Pee is the little-known follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love. Less successful because it lacks the strong spiritual appeal of the original…not.)
Plan. Yes, even if like me, you are a pantser, if you struggle to move forward with your work, then leave yourself a couple of lines of notes that will give you a kick-start the next day. You could even (but this is a gamble) break off in the middle of a crucial scene to give yourself something to come back to the following day, an ‘in media res’ kind of situation. I often have an idea in my head of where the story is going to go, but can forget some of this by the next day, so while it’s fresh, I scratch down a few lines in pencil, just to give myself a little push in the morning. (Not a morning person, I need lots of help!)
Take a notebook everywhere! Yes, I know this is an obvious one for writers, but trust me, on numerous occasions I have had to either abandon a brilliant idea or quickly buy a notebook (oh no, not stationery shopping, how awful!) when out and about! And trust me, notes written on a napkin in ketchup aren’t so easy to read when you get home. The notebook doesn’t have to be a huge heavy one, just a teeny one that fits into a pocket will be fine – so long as you always have something. Any time when you’re just left alone to stare into space can be a good time to write – on the bus, train, waiting for the bus, train, waiting for loved ones to finish work or try on a dress…or you could get a note-making app on your tablet or phone. I do a lot of my best writing in a cafe with a cappuccino. So before you leave the house, make sure you have a notebook and about six pens. Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Notebook and pen? Double check, good to go.
Count Up. This is really a coping mechanism. If you are going through a sticky patch, write longhand rather than on your device of choice. Then each morning, before you start work staring at the crack on the ceiling, count the previous day’s word total manually. Doing this will mean a) you get a quick overview of what you wrote yesterday and you will get into writing mode, and b) you will feel encouraged to build on what you already have. This works for me when nothing else does, even if I end up discarding half or more of the previous day’s work.
Break up the blank. This continues from the one above. If you sit and stare at the white page or screen in dismay and your brain refuses to create, try this:
do #4. Above;
then, start each new page with the date and running word total in the top left corner;
next, number the pages bottom right;
if you are using chapter headings or titles, write that too, or simple write ‘chapter’ followed by the number; Hey presto – the page is no longer blank!!! You could also do #2. for this point, again to give yourself a little push.
Change your routine. This is another one that works well for me. Try sitting somewhere different to your usual spot, get a new viewpoint. Listen to different music – even music you hate will help to produce an emotion or response of some kind! I used to sit in one of my children’s bedrooms when they were at school, and listen to some of their music. Just changing your daily rhythm can trick your brain into creating fresh words or a new viewpoint, especially useful if you’re trying to break out of a writing rut. Try getting up in the middle of the night, if you’re a morning person, or go out and write in the pub or the library or the park if your usual creating space is your desk at home. Anything different is good.
Revise. If you’re really stuck, go back and look at the original premise for your WIP and see if there’s any aspect of your story you’ve missed, ignored or just plain not considered. Did you go down a blind alley? If you don’t have old notes to go back to, write down a couple of paragraphs of what you remember about when the idea for the story first came to you. How did it work out in your mind? How does that compare to what you have actually written so far? Try to see your story as a whole, like a ladder with rungs moving the story onward and upward. What needs to happen to your characters to get the story to the next rung?
Read. This is the easy one. I’m not advocating spending weeks and months reading hundreds of books, but just take some time out to read for half an hour or an hour. Refresh your mind, read some poetry, or a familiar favourite book. Again too, you could try something new and different that will get your creative juices flowing. If I’m writing fiction, I read a non-fiction book, usually history.
Write something else. So often I find the minute I start work on one story, I get ideas coming through for another! Usually it’s another story where I’ve already completed the first draft and am just subconsciously mulling it over. Try your hand a a few flash fiction stories or write a haiku. Just don’t forget to make notes!
Doodle. Make yourself some brain-storming spider-web diagrams. Put your key word – character name, anything to do with your WIP – in the centre, and then bring lots of lines out from that central idea and at the end of each line, write a word or phrase or idea related in some way to the key word. You can put down anything that is linked with your main character, for example, or it could just be ideas that are tentatively linked to the main plot. Or you could just create a list of words from your title, or your character’s name. You could try googling your character’s name and see what comes up – but don’t get side-tracked, this is not an excuse to dally on the Internet! Alternatively, you could brainstorm with something completely different, say a colour or a sound that is in your story, eg blue – then write all the things you can think of to do with blue: the colour of royalty; means sad or depressed; lapis lazuli used to be used to make the pigment blue for artists, and was more expensive than gold, so hence very little of it used in paintings, only for the special few, which brings us back to royalty again; the Greeks had no word for the colour blue, and used the word for brass; the Bible says sometimes when you pray the ‘heavens are as brass’; does that mean they are blue, or they are hard and impenetrable? Blue is a cold colour, blue is the colour for baby boys – but used to be the colour for baby girls up until the early 1900s and it was pink for boys not girls, but then they swapped, did this result in confusion? Hopefully you can see how this technique can generate ideas.
So that’s my top tips. If you get stuck with your writing, or you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, one of these might help you to get back on track and find fresh and exciting ideas. Above all, if you are struggling with a particular idea or a specific part of your WIP, don’t panic, we all struggle sometimes. Just go and do something else for a little while or try a fresh approach.
It’s been a little while since I last did an author interview, and I recently ‘met’ Emma Baird by the magical medium of the Interweb. With her recent release of her novel The Girl Who Swapped, I thought this would be the perfect time to interrogate her before she can recover from post-publication exhaustion.
Hi Emma, it’s great to have this chance to find out a bit more about you. Q1. What kind of books do you write?
Women’s fiction – which is a broad church, thankfully. So, I can write fantasy, chick lit, young adult, contemporary fiction, humour, adventure stories, thrillers, crime fiction… You get the picture. Women, luckily, are very open-minded about what they read. And they tend to read voraciously. I think that gives writers so much freedom.
Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
I just read. And read. Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and a lot of Greek mythology which meant I was useful for crossword clues.
I do remember loving Judy Blume. She tapped into the 80s child psyche so well. If I mentioned Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret or Forever – I’m sure there are lots of people who would nod along, saying ‘Yup! Loved those books.’ I did have to work my way through understanding American food references, though. Graham Crackers, digestives, basically.
And er… my mum had a copy of a Jackie Collins book, and a friend and I used to sneak into her room and read it. Now, that was educational.
Lol I bet it was. My parents used to go through my books quite carefully to check they were suitable. I’m glad to say a few things slipped through! They didn’t realise I read their books too! Q3. I know you’ve only recently released The Girl Who Swapped, which I’ve read and really loved by the way, so what are you working on at the moment?
What can we look forward to in the future from you?
Oof. I went through this mad writing phase last year and finished quite a few books. They are not fit to be unleashed, however.
I do have one book that I’m quite fond of, a coming of age tale that needs a little French polishing. It is set in a small Scottish town, and it tackles lack of confidence, homosexuality, crime and acceptance. The working title is Artists Town, though I’m working on that too. Re-writing and revising is the really important bit. I wish I could find a way to stop procrastinating about it. My way of dealing with rewriting is to start another story instead!
Q4. What are your favourite authors? What are you reading now?
Otherwise, I’ve just finished Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac, as I adore many of the 20thCentury women writers. I re-read my way through Barbara Pym’s books a couple of years ago, and I really enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. I love their observational skills, and the way they make the ‘ordinary’ so interesting.
I LOVED Lauren Graff’s Fate and Furies – and she’s a much more current writer. Special mention too, to Fiona Walker and Marion Keyes (women’s fiction experts extraordinaire). I’ve read all their books – and Marion Keyes is vastly entertaining to follow on Twitter.
Q5. What do you do when you’re not reading?
Cook. I love cooking. I don’t do anything else while doing it, but prep and cook, so it feels mindful. I walk a lot, as it’s easy exercise. Kind of fond of drinking wine too… (interestingly, you can drink and write, but you can’t drink and read!) Also, I’m very much into the 21st Century habit de jour – Netflix binge watching. What the flip did we do before Netflix?!
Q6. What is your writing process?
Boringly prosaic. A word count per day. I set it low. I read a book by Martha Beck years ago about the importance of setting small goals. So, mine is 200 words every day. As it is so low, most days I manage 500 words, so every day I get to feel like I’ve over-achieved my goal. The day job helps with that too. I’m a copywriter – blogs, website content, product descriptions, e-books, video scripts, etc. The usual deal is you get paid by word count, so that discipline makes writing for yourself a lot easier.
At least you’ve got a process that works for you! Emma, thanks so much for ‘popping along’, and I wish you every success with The Girl Who Swapped, and with your future projects. I’m looking forward to reading your Scottish-based book hopefully fairly soon. But you can’t rush these things! To find out more about Emma and her work, please follow the links below: